Hard greens good for Woods

WOODSTOCK, Ga. -- Baked greens and thick rough were troubling enough Friday at the American Express Championship. Even more daunting was Tiger Woods pulling away from a world-class field without breaking a sweat. In one of his best rounds of a roller-coaster year, Woods made seven birdies and finished with a 4-under 66 to take a five-stroke lead into the weekend at Capital City Club. He not only had the best score of the day -- only four other players broke par -- Woods was eight strokes lower than the course average. "It's awfully nice to be in front," said Woods, who was at 7-under 133. He hasn't been in that position at any time during a tournament since going wire-to-wire at the Western Open in early July, which is also the last time he won. Woods is 19-4 when having at least a share of the 36-hole lead. The challenge falls to Rocco Mediate, Tim Herron, Sergio Garcia and K.J. Choi, who all gave up shots on the tough Crabapple course and finished at 138. Mediate made four bogeys over his first eight holes, answered with four straight birdies and then dropped a shot on the 18th for a 72. Herron also bogeyed the 18th for a 72. Garcia, who opened with a bogey-free 65, saw his round fall apart when he missed three straight par putts from inside 10 feet on the front nine. He finished with a 73. "I just couldn't hole the putts today," Garcia said. "That was the biggest difference. Tiger was making them and I wasn't." The other players under par were Stuart Appleby (68) and Ignacio Garrido (71), who were at 139. Vijay Singh had his second even-par 70 and was at 140. Masters champion Mike Weir closed with eight straight pars, none of them easy, to finish with a 73 and was at 2-over 142. He was eight strokes behind going into the weekend at Valderrama when he won the American Express Championship three years ago. This could be more difficult. "When it's firm and fast, it's nearly impossible to shoot 6 or 7 under," Weir said. "To shoot 2 or 3 under with Tiger in the lead isn't going to gain much ground. You know he doesn't usually give them (shots) back." The tournament turned on the 315-yard fifth hole, when Woods hit a 3-wood that landed short of the green and rolled up to 20 feet. He narrowly missed his eagle putt, but that sent him on his way as everyone else struggled. He hit a soft 7-iron that floated down to about 15 feet for birdie on the par-3 sixth to take the lead at 5 under, hit a pitching wedge to 15 feet for another birdie on the eighth and made the turn in 31 with a 7-iron into 4 feet on the ninth. That hole showed Woods at his best. Choi hit his approach about 5 feet in front of the flag and watched it hop and roll through the green, into the wiry Bermuda rough. Woods followed with a shot that soared into the blue skies and descended on the flag, trickling just behind it. He still had to work. The greens are running close to 13 on the Stimpmeter, and even short birdie chances can turn into three-putt bogeys. "No matter how well you play today, you're going to have some par putts 8 or 10 feet, and you're going to have to make those to keep the momentum going," Woods said. "And for most of the day, I was able to make those putts." About the only thing that went wrong for Woods was his best shot of the day. From the middle of the 16th fairway, he watched his approach never leave its line to the flag. It was so good that it struck the pin about 3 feet off the ground, and the ball caromed about 45 feet away. Woods couldn't believe it, turning his head away in disgust. Then, his birdie putt climbed a ridge and was headed to the hole when it caught the lip. Choi then made a 40-footer for birdie that dropped on its last turn, and Garrido followed by making his 15-foot birdie putt. Walking off the green, Woods laughed. "How come I'm the only guy who couldn't make a birdie there?" he said. Don't expect anyone to feel sorry for him. While he hasn't won in nearly three months, Woods still has four victories, tied with Davis Love III for most on tour. A victory this week would be his second World Golf Championship of the year and make him the front-runner for PGA Tour player of the year. And when he gets the lead, no one is tougher to catch. ^Divots:@ Weir was critical of the course setup Friday, saying tour officials let the greens get too crispy. With so many three-putts, and so many jangled nerves on 3-footers, Weir's and Woods' groups were put on the clock. "They did a terrible job setting up the golf course today," he said. "You could hit great shots in there and be 40 or 50 feet away. If they don't put water on them, they're going to be dead for the weekend." ... Phil Mickelson, who ended his first round with four straight bogeys, bogeyed his first three holes Friday. He wound up with a 77. ... NEC Invitational champion Darren Clarke had an 82. At the turn, Clarke asked the standard-bearer to no longer post his score. ... The first-round scoring average was 74.09, the sixth-highest this year behind two rounds at the British Open, two rounds at the PGA Championship and the first round of the Masters.